The Best Workout for Bad Knees
Last Updated: Mar 14, 2016
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Knees are tricky. Like a lot of things, you don't really realize how much they do for you—until they stop working properly. And anyone who's ever had knee pain or a knee injury knows just how debilitating they can be. The key to recovery from and prevention of knee injuries is strengthening the muscles around the knee to relieve stress from the joint without causing pain to it, says Alejandro Rojas, head of fitness at Health LA. Use the following stretches and exercises to do just that, but be careful: These exercises are only meant for non-contact injuries caused by muscle weakness and imbalance. As with any injury rehab, consult your doctor, orthopedist or physical therapist before beginning any exercise regimen, and if you feel any pain while doing these exercises, stop immediately.
OVERHEAD SQUAT ASSESSMENT
You might be thinking, “Squats? Really? But my knees already hurt!” But unless your doctor or physical therapist has told you otherwise, a simple squat can help you assess where your strengths and weaknesses lie within your knee joint. HOW TO DO IT: Bend your knees and sink your hips back as if you were sitting in a chair while raising your arms over your head. “Look for the knees to do two things: move in (adduction) or move out (abduction),” says Maurice Williams, owner of Move Well Fitness Academy. If your knees collapse inward, you’ll need to stretch your calves, inner thighs, hamstrings and hip muscles and strengthen your shin and glute muscles, he says. But if your knees move outward, stretch your calves, glutes and hamstrings and strengthen your inner thighs, back of knee and glute muscles.
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STRETCH 1: CALF STRETCH
The knee is a “dummy joint,” (don't worry -- it's not an insult!) meaning it doesn’t operate on its own, says master trainer Maurice Williams. Instead, it works with the hip and ankle joints to help you move. Stretching your calf muscle and getting it to relax will take some of the undue stress off the knee, Williams says. HOW TO DO IT: Brace yourself with both hands against a wall as you step one foot a few feet in front of the other. Bend the front knee, keeping it stacked over the front foot, but keep the back leg straight. You should feel the stretch in the calf of the leg that's behind you. Hold the stretch statically for 30 to 60 seconds for one to two sets.
Related: 6 Simple Exercises to Prevent Shin Splints
STRETCH 2: QUADRICEPS STRETCH
More frequently called your quads, your quadriceps is a group of four muscles located on the front side of your leg. These are the muscles responsible for extending the knee joint while you walk, run, jump and squat (basically anything that involves moving). Stretching your quads forces them to stop holding on so tightly to your knee, alleviating a source of potential pain. HOW TO DO IT: Stand up straight. Bend your left knee so your left foot reaches toward your left glute. Grab your left foot with your left hand and hold for 30 to 45 seconds for one to two sets.
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STRETCH 3: RECLINED PIRIFORMIS STRETCH
Though you may have never heard of your piriformis muscle before, if you've ever had a pain in your butt (literally), it could be the culprit. “The piriformis muscle typically compensates for other muscles in your hip, which can cause knee pain,” says master trainer Maurice Williams. “But if the piriformis relaxes, the knee can relax.” And that means you can relax, too. HOW TO DO IT: Lie on your back with your right leg flat on the floor and your left leg raised and knee bent at 90 degrees. Take your left foot and bring it to your right side. Hold for 30 to 45 seconds for one to two sets.
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STRETCH 4: INNER-THIGH STRETCH
If you notice your legs bending inward on a lot of exercises (or on the overhead squat assessment), you'll want to spend some quality time doing this stretch. It's also a perfect stretch for runners, who are notorious for having overuse injuries in the knees. HOW TO DO IT: Stand with your legs several feet apart -- wider than hip distance. Shift your weight to your right side and bend your right knee. Keeping your left foot on the floor, feel the stretch through your left inner thigh. Support yourself with your hands on the ground if needed. Hold for 30 to 45 seconds for one to two sets.
Related: 11 Stretches Almost Everyone Can Do
STRETCH 5: RECLINED HAMSTRING STRETCH
Here's a little test for you: Lie on your back and lift one leg straight out in front of you while keeping it straight. How high can you lift it? “You should be able to lift your leg at least to 90 degrees,” says master trainer Maurice Williams. “If not, your hamstrings are too tight, which shortens and pulls the muscles in your knee and affects the joint.” Use this stretch to give your knee some much-needed relief. HOW TO DO IT: Start on your back with both legs extended along the floor. Lift your right leg up as high as you can without bending your knee or lifting your other leg. Hold on to either the back of your thigh or your calf and continue to pull your leg toward your torso for 30 to 45 seconds for one to two sets.
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EXERCISE 1: CALF RAISES
The muscles of the calf and shin don't usually make it onto the cover of fitness magazines, but they do play an integral role in helping your knee joint function properly. (Not every muscle group can be as sexy as the abs, and that's OK!) So after warming up with the calf stretch, do a few sets of calf raises to help strengthen your calves and shins and stabilize your ankle joint. HOW TO DO IT: You can either stand on the edge of a step or box or flat on the floor. You can also perform these as a single-leg exercise (harder) or double-leg exercise (easier). Start standing flat on your feet. If you’re on a step, let your heels hang off the edge. Lift your heels so that you’re balancing on your toes, and then lower back down and repeat without touching the floor. Perform 12 to 20 reps (six to 10 on each side) at a slow tempo for one to three sets.
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EXERCISE 2: SINGLE-LEG DEADLIFT
Ah, the power of the tried-and-true deadlift. Made even more effective on your knees by balancing on one leg. The deadlift strengthens the entire backs of your legs, helping prevent other muscles from compensating, wearing out and causing pain, says personal trainer Alejandro Rojas. However, if you’ve never done deadlifts, if your knees are too weak or if your balance isn’t stable, start with standard deadlifts. HOW TO DO IT: Stand with both feet hip-distance apart and a dumbbell or barbell in each hand (you can also do this one without weights). Shift your weight to your right foot and hinge at your hip to bend forward so that your torso is parallel to the floor. Extend your arms straight out from your shoulders and let them hang toward the ground. Using only your hamstrings and glutes, contract the muscles in the back of your leg and stand up. Perform six to 10 reps on each side at a slow tempo for one to three sets.
Related: 8 Unilateral Exercises to Challenge Your Balance
EXERCISE 3: SUPINE BRIDGE KICKS
Bridge kicks are the perfect lower-body exercise when your knees are taken out of the workout equation. They not only strengthen your glutes, hamstrings and core, but adding the kicks also recruits your hamstrings without putting the raised knee under a lot of pressure, says personal trainer Alejandro Rojas. Talk about a winning combo. HOW TO DO IT: Lie on your back with your arms by your side and your knees bent and pointing toward the ceiling. Lift your hips and back off the floor so that your weight is in your shoulder blades, arms and feet. Shift your weight into your left foot and raise your right foot off the ground so that your leg is extended out at a 45-degree angle to the floor, contracting your quadriceps as you do, but without locking your knee. Slowly bring your right foot back to the starting position, but don’t let it touch the floor. Continue for six to 10 total reps on each leg at a slow tempo for one to three sets.
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EXERCISE 4: SIDE-LYING LEG RAISE
No two days ever seem to be the same if you have a knee injury. One day you're feeling like Superman; the next day you're flat on your back. So these next three exercises are a gradual progression that all work the gluteus medius (outer thigh), says master trainer Maurice Williams. That way you can choose your variation depending on how you're feeing. It’s important to take these reps slowly, so that your muscles spend more time under tension, which helps them grow stronger and more stable. HOW TO DO IT: Lie on your side with your body in a straight line from head to toe and a hand in front of you for support. Bring your feet forward just slightly if you need more stability. Lift the top leg several inches from the top leg for one count, hold at the top for two counts, and then slowly lower it for four counts. Hover the top leg just above the leg on the floor and repeat. Perform 12 to 20 reps on each side at this tempo for one to three sets.
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EXERCISE 5: CLAMS
This is hands-down the best exercise for the gluteus medius, says master trainer Maurice Williams. Yep, that's one of the muscles in your butt. This variation is more focused than the side-lying leg raise, which allows you to use adjacent muscles to help lift the leg. But if this exercise is too strenuous on your knees, stick with the side-lying leg raise until you’re strong enough. HOW TO DO IT: Start lying on your side with your knees bent and slightly in front of you. Keeping your feet together, use your outer-thigh muscles to separate your knees several inches. Use the same one-two-four count as with the side-lying leg lifts. Perform 12 to 20 reps on each side at this tempo for one to three sets.
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EXERCISE 6: RESISTANCE BAND WALKING
Just like you had to crawl before you walked as a kid, the previous two exercises have lead you to this one. Resistance band walking takes the gluteus medius work of the previous two exercises and adds the functional element of walking, says master trainer Maurice Williams. It’s the most advanced version of the gluteus medius exercises in this series, so it’s OK to stick with the other two till you work up to this one. HOW TO DO IT: Stand up straight with knees slightly bent. Either place a resistance band just above your knees or ankles (not on them) or take a long resistance band and wrap it under your feet, holding one handle in each hand. Take a step to the right with your right foot and follow with the left. Continue walking sideways for 10 steps before walking back to the left for 10 steps. Repeat for one to three sets.
Related: 10 Resistance Band Exercises to Tone and Tighten
EXERCISE 7: STRAIGHT-LEG RAISES
If knee pain ever does knock you flat on your back, give this exercise a try while you're down there. Because there's no sense in letting pain win if there's something you can do about it. This exercise primarily targets the quadriceps and hip flexors, though if you resist on the way down, you’ll also incorporate your hamstrings and glutes, says personal trainer Alejandro Rojas. HOW TO DO IT: Lie on your back with your feet extended flat along the floor and your arms by your side. Use your quads and hip flexors to raise your leg up to 90 degrees, pressing into your arms for stability. Hold before lowering down slowly, focusing on using your hamstrings and glutes to lower the leg rather than letting gravity drag it down. Perform six to 10 reps on each side at a slow tempo for one to three sets.
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EXERCISE 8: LUNGES
Before you scoff at the idea of doing lunges with you tired, achy knees, just listen for a second: Although you might not be jumping straight into lunges on day one, the goal of your rehab regimen should be to strengthen your knees to the point where you can do lunges without pain, says master trainer Maurice Williams. Plus, lunges are one of the best lower-body exercises you can do to target all the muscles across the knee joint. HOW TO DO IT: Stand with your hands on your hips for balance. Step forward a few feet and bend both knees so that they are at 90-degree angles. Don’t let your front knee go over your front foot. Push off your front foot and return to standing. Do six to 10 reps on each leg or 12 to 20 reps alternating legs for one to three sets.
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WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Do you have bad knees? Is your injury a result of overuse, arthritis or a general weakening of your joints? Have you ever done physical therapy? What kind of corrective stretches and exercises did you do? Have you ever tried any of these exercises? Which ones helped the most? Do you think you’ll add any to your regular workout routine? Share your thoughts, questions and suggestions in the comments below!
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